#MeToo: What We Know About Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is nothing new. But when a celebrity is accused of harassment, more people focus on the problem and how to stop it. Earlier this month, accusations that moviemaker Harvey Weinstein harassed dozens of women over the course of decades brought the topic to the forefront of people’s minds again.

Here is the surprising part: The news of Weinstein’s transgressions sparked a social media movement. Last week, millions of women shared their own experiences of sexual harassment or abuse by posting or tweeting “me too.”

The campaign raises an interesting question: Is sexual harassment more prevalent than we realize? And what effects is it having in our society?

Last year, the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission published a report written by 16 experts from across the country. The commission found evidence that anywhere from 25 to 85 percent of women have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. The range is so large because so few women feel comfortable reporting harassment in the workplace. Approximately 75 percent of people who experienced harassment did not report it to a supervisor, manager or union representative. The study found people fail to report harassment because they fear their supervisor wouldn’t believe them, wouldn’t take action or the perpetrator will retaliate in some way.

Other studies document similar rates of harassment. A systematic review of 136 studies found that 25 percent of nurses experience sexual harassment in the workplace. Another analysis of 51 studies found that nearly 60 percent of medical trainees experienced harassment or discrimination during their training.

While there is not robust evidence on the affects of this problem, there is some data that shows harassment harms women’s careers. A study published earlier this year in the journal Gender and Society used in-depth interview and longitudinal survey data to quantify the effects of harassment on women’s careers. The study found that sexual harassment contributes to financial difficulties for women, primarily because many choose to leave their jobs to escape the harassment instead of filing a complaint. Other women do report harassment, and decided to leave the job because they are not satisfied with how the employer handled their complaint.

The study also describes how harassment can lead to missed days at work, withdrawal, and reduced job satisfaction, and can adversely affect relationships with co-workers – all factors that harm women’s chances at promotion.

What can we do about it?

The report by the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission offers some suggestions:

  • Defining what sexual harassment is helps. Surveys found that when people were asked if they experienced sexual harassment, about 25 percent reported some sort of harassment in the workplace. But when surveys provided details about specific acts of harassment, such as sexual coercion or crude jokes, 60 percent of people reported experiencing harassment.
  • Employers can improve their training sessions. Often training sessions focus on avoiding legal liability, instead of shaping employees attitude about what kind of behaviors are acceptable in the workplace. Limited data shows that training can increase knowledge about what kinds of behavior are unacceptable. But more often, training makes no difference and in some instances it may be counterproductive.
  • Two new types of training do show evidence of reducing the incidence of sexual harassment by helping to shape the culture of the workplace. Workplace civility training focuses on establishing expectations of civility and respect and offers examples of positive interpersonal communication and conflict resolution.  And bystander training helps all employees to recognize potentially problematic behaviors and empowers them to speak up by giving people the skills and confidence to intervene and the resources for additional support.

The take-home message is that sexual harassment is everywhere. While the evidence is limited, there is some data to show what steps employers and organizations can take to reduce the incidence of sexual harassment in their organizations.

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